Nikelle Meade is a one-woman environmental agency. If Austin looks greener and seems less encroached upon by developers these days, you might give Meade a thank-you the next time you see her on the street.
Consider, for example, her six-year-long effort on the Milago project. In 1998 developers had their eyes — and bulldozers — fixed on that neighborhood on the south end of Rainey Street, in the heart of a historic Hispanic neighborhood. That was just fine with the people who might move into the planned 10-story luxury high-rise condominium, but it didn’t sit well at all with the longtime residents of the community. They feared the condos would destroy what little parkland they had, ruin their plans for a planned Mexican-American Cultural Center, and they felt their heritage was being ignored or pushed aside by greedy developers.
Meade listened carefully to the neighborhood objections and went into action. Because the area is subject to Austin’s rigorous Town Lake Waterfront Overlay ordinances, any building plan there must go through a tough review and approval process. And here is where her special skills came into play. She developed a plan that would honor the builder’s business plans and take into account the neighborhood’s desires. In a remarkable feat of diplomacy, Meade convinced the developer to add $150,000 in improvements to the 10 acres of parkland immediately adjacent to the planned project. That park is going to be the front yard of the new and long-awaited Mexican-American Cultural Center funded by the city and federal grants. The center is expected to be completed in February 2007.
“The builder took a pretty crappy part of Town Lake Park and agreed to make it really beautiful,” Meade says.
In the end, everyone signed off on the plan. Now the nearly 40 neighbors see the 240-unit 13-story condominium in a new light. Interestingly, the neighbors who initially felt they were being pushed out later argued for higher commercial density, thus raising the value of their homes. Many now are hoping to sell their property for large profits; Meade already sees this happening.
“This is so important because it’s the first new development happening in that area,” she says. It had to be done right, she explains, to set the template for any further growth in the area. “This project is the key to revitalizing that entire area,” Meade says.
In Austin, the state’s showcase “green” city, this young attorney has turned her 10 years of work in real estate law into a mission.
“I really am at heart an environmentalist,” Meade says, “but I firmly believe you can balance development, growth, housing and protection of the environment. It all matters where you put development. It doesn’t have to be over environmentally sensitive land, but it doesn’t have to all be downtown either.”
Austin City Councilwoman Betty Dunkerley, who has watched Meade in action, praises her political skills.
“When she is representing citizens in zoning cases before the city,” Dunkerley says, “she is always open-minded and working to find a solution that’s good for everyone. She believes in compromise.”
The Milago project may have demonstrated Meade’s political skills, but the size of that park she helped create pales in comparison to one of her latest projects. Former mayor Kirk Watson chose Meade to be one of the first members of the new Hill Country Conservancy Board of Directors. The conservancy’s latest goal is helping the City of Austin preserve 50,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land.
Most of the undeveloped acreage lies in the Barton Creek Watershed, over the environmentally vulnerable Edwards Aquifer, a water source that feeds the beloved Barton Springs Pool. The scrubby Texas land has become low-lying fruit for developers. It is ranch land, raw and beautiful, but it’s quickly being sold off to big developers because landowners can’t afford the taxes and upkeep. The conservancy board is working to establish complex agreements with the landowners that allow the land to be purchased with city dollars. The city will then limit ranching and allow only a scattering of homes to be built.
Negotiations have been delicate because by nature Texans are very protective of their property rights and don’t like anyone telling them what to do with their land.
Fred Ellis, the director of government and community affairs at the Hill Country Conservancy, says the preservation efforts would flounder without Meade.
Her efforts to convince landowners that preserving some of the disappearing Hill Country is beneficial to the environment and to them financially have been crucial to the project’s success, Ellis says.
Meade, 35, is a shareholder and partner with Brown McCarroll, the second-largest firm in Austin with 92 attorneys in the city and 171 statewide. She joined in 1998, and in 2002 was elected the youngest partner in the firm’s history.
She grew up in Spring as part of an upper-middle-class family. Her mother was a schoolteacher, her father an electrical engineer. The only lawyer in her family was her uncle, who worked for the IRS.
“That didn’t inspire me to go into law because, well, we all know about the IRS,” she says. “For a few years I thought about medical school, but blood and guts are not for me.”
Instead, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English, with a minor in psychology, from the University of Texas at Austin and then graduated in 1995 from the UT School of Law. After law school, she decided to practice real estate law, and that left her only a few choices. She could stay in Austin, where she had a job offer from a small firm called Minter, Joseph & Thornhill, or move to Midland and work for Arco Oil and Gas.
“I decided to stay in Austin,” Meade says. “I really wondered if I’d fit in Austin. I wanted to go back to Houston, but I’m so glad I stayed. I love it here.” She worked for three and a half years at Minter and then moved to Brown McCarroll.
She’s unmarried and has no children, but her life is not without its share of screaming children and sticky kisses.
“My brother lives in Leander [about 20 miles northwest of Austin] and I have five nieces and nephews, ages 1 to 13,” says the proud aunt.
True to her environmental leanings, when she’s home she’s usually outside.
“I truly love the parks and I like biking on the Veloway in Circle C. I love the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, where I go to read or just wander around,” she says.
Meade begins her day at 7:30 a.m. and frequently works until 10 p.m. Looking out the window of her 15th-floor office, with its northbound view of downtown Austin, Meade says her job is about finding balance.
Working with people on both sides — the environmentalists and the developers or landowners — puts her in a uniquely empathetic position to build consensus and reach agreements.
But even Meade’s talents were tested in the “long bloody fight” that became hers when she sat for more than a year on a task force to help complete the largest annexation in Austin’s history, which included various sections on the edge of the city.
Meeting with the neighbors, she says, was like “being in front of an angry firing squad.” But the annexation succeeded and she survived the experience. In fact, she now lives in the largest and most contentious neighborhood targeted by the annexation, Circle C Ranch.
And, she says, she gets along just fine with her neighbors.